In December 2020, a story about a Syrian refugee family in Heerlen being terrorized by their neighbors was published in Dutch newspapers. After being picked up by the organization Muslim Rights Watch, the story quickly went viral, escalating through digital vigilantism.
Last December, the father of a Syrian refugee family living in Heerlen posted footage of an ongoing conflict with his neighbors on Facebook. Mohamad Sakka's post included videos of the family being fire bombed, attacked by a dog, and squirted with chlorine from a water pistol. The videos also contained a short testimonial from the father, explaining his side of the story. Sakka clarified that a neighbor started the conflict by accusing them of terrorism.
Eventually, other neighbors joined the violent neighbor in his attacks against the refugee family. Sakka disclosed that “his children are now suffering from anxiety disorders”, due to the continued attacks. He also reported that they filed charges multiple times but that the local authorities refused to help them. The conflict between the Syrian family and their neighbors eventually escalated to the extent that the Syrian family fled to Belgium.
Vincio Wonen allegedly told the family to search for a house in Syria if they did not like the place they lived: “We sincerely wonder why you do not use a housing corporation in your own country."
In the preceeding November, the housing corporation behind both the family and the violent neighbor's homes, Vincio Wonen, lost a lawsuit against the Syrian family that attemped to remove them from the house. The lawsuit was initiated by the neighbor who started the conflict. On Facebook, Vincio Wonen allegedly told the family to search for a house in Syria if they did not like the place they lived: “We sincerely wonder why you do not use a housing corporation in your own country. If you and other foreigners would do so, we would have less complaints. Let us be honest: full is full!” Vincio Wonen however, claims, that this statement was made by a fake account impersonating them.
The story was picked up by Muslim Rights Watch, an organization that defends the rights of Muslims in the Netherlands, who reposted the videos to their Facebook. Not long after, the story went viral on Dutch social media, spreading the videos rapidly on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (Nahon, Hemsley, Walker, & Hussain, 2011). Social media users called out the neighbors and Vincio Wonen, (Trottier; 2017; Wood, Rose, & Thompson, 2019) expressing their disgust towards the neighbors while sympathizing with the refugee family. Individuals often understand viral social media stories through others' comments, meaning that virality likely contributed to emotional contagion (Welbers & Opgenhaffen, 2019).The story also reached some celebrities in the Netherlands who reposted the story and boosted its virality. Bas Smit even hosted a fundraising campaign for the refugee family. Moreover, the story's popularity on social media led to protests against racism in Heerlen. The local authorities only took action after the escalation of the conflict on social media and the accompanying consequences.
Citizen witnessing and digital vigilantism
Technology enables citizens to capture moments and share them with others who are absent. Citizen witnessing is a function of this technological development, involving a two-step reflexive process consisting of a sensory, private experience and a public statement (Allan, 2016). This public statement is often posted on social media. Furthermore, social media enables individuals across the world to organize themselves and act upon injustice when legal authorities cannot or will not do so. This results in digital vigilantism (Trottier, 2017; Wood et al., 2019).
Due to the impact of social media on this vigilantism case both in the digital world (e.g., fundraising) and the physical world (e.g., protests), and the large amount of news articles written about it, it is of societal and academic relevance to analyze how social media, digital journalism, and citizen witnessing played a role in these far-reaching effects. Thus, the following question will be discussed in this essay: How did social media, digital journalism, and citizen witnessing contribute to digital vigilantist responses to these attacks, and what are the consequences of this call out?
The most important platforms in this analysis will be Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, since the story about the Syrian family went viral and was the focus of large discussions on these platforms. The newspapers 1Limburg and De Limburger will be also used in this analysis, as they are local to the Syrian family's residence in Heerlen. Due to physical proximity, these newspapers had the opportunity to immediately send journalists to the location. Finally, articles discussing the relevance of virality, social media, and both sides of the story will be included in this analysis, since shocking news goes viral easily and social media often focuses only on one side of the story (Welbers & Opgenhaffen, 2019). These include articles from De Volkskrant, RTL Nieuws, Hart van Nederland, NOS and NRC.
Mohamad Sakka privately witnessed the conflict with his neighbors and made a moral assessment of the situation. The father evaluated the conflict as deviating from his norms and values, not to mention a direct threat to his safety, and decided to digitally capture these moments. Next, he shared these videos, a form of user-generated content, on Facebook, turning the conflict into a public statement. Sakka wanted others, not present at the conflict, to judge the conflict from a distance and raise awareness about the situation since the local authorities refused to help them.
Sakka's original post did not have much success in and of itself. However, when Muslim Rights Watch reposted the videos, they went viral. The purpose of this post of Muslim Rights Watch was twofold: they wanted to raise awareness about racism and islamophobia, but the post also served as a call for action for the local authorities (“The purpose of this video is to seek attention for this case in the hope that the local authorities will take action”).
This is where the process of virality started and the infrastructure of social media contributed to the popularity of the post: not long after Muslim Rights Watch shared the video, large amounts of social media users reposted the video within a very short period of time. It is important to understand why the videos went viral so easily. First, connectivity and emotions are characteristic of social media. Social media affordances allowed users to like, comment on, and share the videos with others while expressing their emotions. The ecology of social media is one of sharing and collectivity. Users felt a shared social responsibility to increase the conflict's visibility by forwarding the videos. Many users called on others to share the videos as well: “Share this please!”
Users felt a shared social responsibility to increase the conflict's visibility by forwarding the videos.
Users also tagged local authorities and politicians in their comments: “@minpres, I hope you see this”, “@ferd.grapperhaus, what are you going to do about this?” and “@heerlenis, we cannot accept this!” Second, the video preview contained the following warning: “This video may be shocking.” This sentence indicates that the post was about breaking news, which might have motivated people to watch the videos. This is not only the kind of content that generates high physiological arousal but also algorithmic engagement, therefore having the highest chance of going viral (Welbers & Opgenhaffen, 2019). Many legacy news media outlets also reported on the conflict, in part due to its virality. This only furthered the story's visibility.
A one-sided story?
This case is a clear example of digital vigilantism, specifically of a call out, since the primary goal of social media users was to identify and criticize the neighbors and Vincio Wonen (Trottier, 2017; Wood et al., 2019). People expressed their mass understanding about shared norms and values by highlighting that these behaviors are inhumane but also happen too often in the Netherlands and do not receive enough media attention (e.g., “Get rid of the racists in the Netherlands!” and “Why is there no attention to this in the media???”) This analysis also revealed that the purpose of the call out expanded to raising awareness about Islamophobia in general (e.g., “Pure Islamophobia!!!”).
Most of these posts contain the following elements: (a) expressions of disgust and outrage towards the neighbors and Vincio Wonen (e.g., “This makes me sick”) and (b) expressions of sympathy towards the refugee family (e.g., “We are going to help them” and “What can we do to help?”). One Instagram user even offered very explicit help: “They can stay in my house if they want to spend the night somewhere else.” These expressions contextualized other social media users’ understanding of the conflict, since most comments contain these expressions. It is therefore likely that emotional contagion may have played a role in the lack of portrayal of both sides of the story on social media and the amount of sympathy for the family.
One Instagram user even offered very explicit help: “They can stay in my house if they want to spend the night somewhere else.”
Regarding the digital news articles written about this topic, most news articles described the story as an “escalated fight between neighbors.” Nonetheless, some news articles depict the story using words such as “terrible”, “terrorizing”, “riot”, “mistreatment” and “harassing.” One news article that described the story as “a fight between neighbors” received many negative comments on social media, namely that the situation is not just a fight but an act of terrorism.
The videos only show one side of the story and are difficult to verify because they display fractured pieces of events. Thus, insight into the other side of the story is crucial. Another video, also a form of citizen witnessing, in which a neighbor helped the Syrian family put out the fire in their garden, was reported on by Hart van Nederland. The headline of the news article is the following: “Terror in Heerlen: neighbor helps Syrian father.” However, this part of the story is absent from social media.
Other news articles mention that the father has been accused of sexual intimidation and stalking, including towards his own wife and daughters. These articles also mention his children’s school requesting a restraining order against him for the same reason. Most news articles report on these accusations in an objective manner (e.g., “The neighbors of the Syrian man accuse him of sexual intimidation and stalking”). One news article starts with the following headline: “Conflict between neighbors in Heerlen turned into national riot: was it discrimination or stalking?”, thereby questioning the cause of the conflict.
Statements from local authorities clarify that they do not approve of the one-sidedness.
A few social media users include these accusations in their comments. These individuals either choose the side of the neighbors or remain impartial, stating they have too little information to judge the matter (e.g., “What about the sexual intimidation? The terrorizing didn't start out of nowhere”). This shows that digital journalism has played a minor role in this case. Individuals have used news articles about the accusations as input for their discussions on social media, but most users still rely on how the story has been presented on social media.
In contrast to social media posts, most news articles mention both sides of the story along with statements from local authorities, the family's lawyer, and Vincio Wonen. The news articles' accuracy is therefore probably higher than that of social media posts. Statements from local authorities clarify that they do not approve of the one-sidedness: “Influencers with so many followers should be careful of distributing a certain version of the story without more information.” The Limburg police force spokesman further made the following statement: “The Syrian family assumes the role of victim in the video. The discrimination card gets played very easily."
Positive and negative consequences
The story's virality on social media influenced both the online and offline aspects of the conflict. Celebrities in the Netherlands noticed the story on social media and shared it, expressing their disgust towards the neighbors (e.g., “What kind of outrageous behavior is this?” and “This really is too absurd…”). This also contributed to the virality of the story. A positive outcome is that one of these celebrities, Bas Smit, took it a step further and hosted a fundraising campaign that collected 30.000 euros for the refugee family to move. Additionally people from across the country traveled to Heerlen to protest against racism.
On the other hand, there were multiple calls on social media to gather at the violent neighbor's house to destroy and steal things. Despite these calls, others on social media expressed that they would not tolerate violence against the neighbors. One Instagram user included the following sentence in her caption: “Anyone who calls for a crime or invites people to visit Heerlen will be blocked and their comment will be DELETED.” Following the story's virality and calls for destruction and robberies, the local authorities began investigating the situation and ensured safety for the family and their neighbors. Furthermore, the local authorities found temporary housing for both families outside Heerlen.
The Syrian refugee family's case is one of digital vigilantism. Social media users identified and confronted the perpetrators with the purpose of seeking justice when local authorities refused to take action. Social media and citizen witnessing in particular played important roles in the moral and organizational dimensions of this digital vigilantism case. Because of the way in which social media algorithms are designed, the videos quickly went viral.
Digital journalism also played a minor role in providing input for discussions on social media. However, the accuracy of news articles about this topic is probably higher than that of social media posts, because both sides of the story are mentioned in these articles. Finally, the popularity of the story had positive (e.g., fundraising) and negative consequences (e.g., robberies at neighbor’s house). These findings about the roles of social media, citizen witnessing, and digital journalism offer some insight into how to best intervene when digital vigilantism escalates.
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